Hey, what about those Herculaneum papyrus scrolls?

Sometimes I can be guilty of thinking life might be simpler without modern technology. Despite the fact I’m a technologist at heart.

But then I hear about something that takes my breath away, and I’m back on the modern technology bandwagon. Hell, with this one I’m back on the research bandwagon as well…

There came in my facebook stream recently a link to an article called We can now read papyrus scrolls buried by lava in 79 AD. The title says it all. It’s about a new non-destructive X-ray technique that allows scientists to read handwritten, carbonised papyrus scrolls preserved in the library of Herculaneum, which was buried along with Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted.


These scrolls cannot be unfurled. They are apparently something like lumps of coal. And yet this fancy X-ray phase contrasting technique can somehow isolate the writing (some in Latin, some Greek) on separate parts of a rolled-up scroll… allowing the scroll to be read (no doubt painstakingly).

There are hundreds of scrolls in this library. Not to mention all the other fragile texts found all over the place that now have the potential to be read.

I can just imagine the excitement of a whole bunch of research scientists in this field. They must be beside themselves.

I really do find archaeology so inspiring. It’s the sense of layering, down and back and deep. The ability of the past to inform the present and future.

And isn’t it a sweet dichotomy to have the mysteries of the ancient past unveiled by something so unambiguously modern as X-ray imaging? Those scrolls have been sitting in a vault somewhere for a few hundred years, just waiting for humans to come up with a means of reading them.

I’m not sure what my point is, other than I find this fascinating and wanted to share.

6 thoughts on “Hey, what about those Herculaneum papyrus scrolls?

  1. I agree that it is pretty fascinating. There’s so much about history that we don’t know, and some things that we still don’t know how they were done or can’t even replicate today. Hopefully this will open up some answers for us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think “simply sharing” was the point of this and wow, I am so grateful. And besides it’s got a lot to do with writing, they might even discover a sequel (or prequel) to Ovid’s Metamorphoses! That would be fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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